Motivation Formula & How to Use It

Motivation Formula & How to Use It

When my daughter Betsy was in middle school, she told me through a flood of tears that she was sure she had no self-motivation. She couldn't make herself do things she didn't want to do.

Yep, that's the message I'd inadvertently been sending: making yourself do things you don't want to do IS self-motivation. Of course I was applying it to myself as well, and it led to a lot of anger and frustration, especially on cleaning day. Cleaning day in my house was no fun for anyone!

Turns out that she and I had been missing the point. While making yourself do something you don't want to do may be a good way to practice self-control or even determination, it is not how self-motivation works.

Self-motivation, like all human motivation, works like this:

Want + Possible = Action

Surprised? So was Betsy when, after using SAY WHAT YOU SEE to validate what she believed and how helpless she felt when facing a task like cleaning her room, I pointed out her HIDDEN STRENGTH of self-motivation. Betsy loved to read. She had actually read every book on her floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, some books more than once for no other reason than she wanted to. That's pure, internally generated motivation.

Wanting to do something is our natural motivation; whether or not we take action depends on how possible what we want seems. 

Think about it. When was the last time you did something you didn't want to do? Why did you do it? If your answer is, "Because I had to or else _______," you probably struggled all the way through that task or at best did it with a feeling of resignation. Avoiding unpleasant consequences can feel like motivation but it will also feel external and forced. As I said, you can practice self-control or experience your determination that way, but not the ease and joy of true self-motivation.

To experience your self-motivation in any task, try connecting with something you want on the other side of the task. For example, I spent years griping at my bathroom sink for making me clean it regularly "because I had to or else it would grow mold." Cleaning it and my house became so much easier when I started to focus on the end result, and realized why I was really cleaning was "because I wanted a shiny sink and clean floors." The more I focused on what I wanted, the easier cleaning became. I love a clean house. That's why I clean. Period. The "or else" reason was my substitute for self-motivation until I got back in touch with my own. 

If that's not enough, look at the opposite. What things can you just not make yourself do, regardless of the reasons you have for why you should? My guess is that you can't see anything you want in doing those things OR you don't think what you want is possible. If it's the former, and you really don't want to do something, no way, no how, never, then you may be right that it's not yours to do. If it's the latter, that you don't think what you want is possible, find a life coach now! Some way, somehow, everything is possible.

While Betsy was a bit skeptical when I pointed out "wanting" as her innate self-motivation, she liked it. So when it was time for her to clean her room, we talked about what she wanted her room to look like. When she could envision it and knew where to start (CAN DO), it became possible and even seemed easy, so she naturally took action.

After her room was the way she wanted it, I validated all the things she liked about her clean room—she could walk without breaking things that were hidden under clothes on the floor, she could find her necklaces when they were hanging neatly on her rack, etc.

I knew that connecting her with her love of a clean space and giving her the skills to make that possible were the two things I could send with her into the future. To me this was the point, not whether or not her room stayed clean. I did the same for her sister, Colleen, and years later, they, like me, do not always keep a clean house, but when they want it clean, it gets done.

And one more thing about kids. Until age 26 or so when adolescence is complete, kids live far more in the "now" than we do. While they can think ahead and even plan, the future is not nearly as real to them as it is to us. We live almost entirely in the future, and have to remind ourselves that what is real is in the here and now, not in our heads. Stepping into your child's world with SAY WHAT YOU SEE can help you bring the benefits of both together for your child.

When you look around your child's messy room in the "now," it can seem as overwhelming to you as it does to them, which will make it easier to see why helping your middle-schooler step into the future a little at a time is what is needed. That might mean helping them envision what they want and know they can do in the next two minutes—like a neatly made bed, or clothes in the hamper, or one other thing at a time.

Breaking things down into short-term visions is basically what you do when cleaning a room or tackling any big task, whether you are aware of it or not. Check it out next time you do one of your chores, and see if envisioning what you want makes it easier.

Helping kids recognize that "want + possible = action" is really how they work is the best coaching you can provide. If they resist the envisioning exercise about cleaning their room (which they might if they feel like they are or have been forced to clean it), start with something they are happy to say they want, like playing a game. Have them envision it, and feel how hard it is to hold back when they know it is possible. Once kids get this formula, they can use it to help them do things they know they need to do the rest of their lives, as long as they can find something they want in it, or just beyond.    

Helping our kids (and ourselves) stay in touch with what they want and making sure they know anything is possible is built into the three-part Language of Listening® coaching model. You can learn more about how it works by reading the online version of my handbook free, SAY WHAT YOU SEE®, and watching the workshops in the Online Training Center.


  1. This is really helpful, I can totally relate to “because I want a clean sink & mirror!” as that’s the only thing that has helped me clean recently.
    I’m having trouble translating this to work, for something like writing up my yearly objectives… I most certainly don’t want to and don’t see the point, and I don’t find motivation in “I want to keep my job…”
    For kids though, how do you motivate if they don’t care about a clean room?

    • Delphine, thank you for your comment.

      Experiencing success with the motivation formula is the place to start, just as you did in recognizing what helps you start cleaning is wanting a clean sink and mirror and envisioning it. We do this subconsciously all of the time; bringing awareness to it is what this post is about.

      Likewise with young kids, start with something they are happy to say they want, like playing a game. When a child pictures playing a game they want to play and knows they can play it, it is extremely hard for them to hold back. They want to run and do it right now. That’s the time to help them see how the motivation formula works, and that self-motivation is already within them.

      Once they “get it” and see how it works for things they like and want, then you can suggest they try a small challenge to see how it can help them with something they know they need to do, but don’t really want to do, but don’t mind too much. See if they can find something they want in the doing of the small task or just beyond.

      For example, if the task is putting a toy away, maybe they can find a fun way to do it like slow motion, fast motion, or another creative approach, or if there is another toy they want and they know this one has to be put away first, challenge them focus on the one they want and see how quickly they can put this one away so they can get it. “You want that one AND this one has to be put away. See how fast you can put this one away to get that one! Go!”

      All motivation is internal, so once kids start succeeding in harnessing their own motivation and understanding how they work, they can try it on bigger and bigger challenges. Pride in knowing they have self-motivation will get them through many challenges in life. This is the kind of Success Training that works for kids that I talk about in many of my blog posts.

      When you (or kids) don’t take action, the two places to look are at what you want and if you think the action is possible. The task you don’t like at work is one that I’m guessing you actually complete each year despite not wanting to, so you probably are leaning on the distant want that you mentioned of keeping your job. Either that or something else you want has to be present for you to take action. Finding which want it is could be helpful. If it’s not wanting to keep your job, then it might be something closer at hand that you want or like but don’t recognize, like getting thing done and checking them off your list, doing things well, being thorough, acting responsibly, keeping your word, or like your kids, finishing it so you can do something you want to do more. The closer at hand the thing you want is and the more you want it, the easier it is to harness that want to help you take the action you need to take.

      Often the thing that helps the most in connecting with what you want is being able to say what you DON’T WANT as in, “I don’t like this. I think it’s pointless! I don’t want to do it!” Saying what you don’t want out loud or under your breath often frees you up to take action. That’s because the first premise of Language of Listening® applies to us as well as to children: “Everything we say and do is a communication; and we must continue to communicate until we are heard.” Wants are the most important thing we communicate, so if you can’t say you don’t want something, you will have to act that out, which often shows up as resistance to the action you need to do. Once that’s out, it’s much easier to focus on what you do want…even if it’s just wanting to get the stupid task done.

      As for older kids who don’t care about a clean room, like I mentioned in the post, check to see if they are resistant because they feel like they are or have been forced to clean. “Don’t care” is often what WE conclude when kids don’t take action based on OUR motivation. Most kids actually like a number of things about a clean room, but can’t tell us without fearing we will use it against them. Try Success Training with them as above with things they want to do, so they know they already have motivation before challenging them to use it in cleaning their rooms.

      When they are ready for the room challenge, let them tell you how much they don’t want to do it, validate that with SAY WHAT YOU SEE, then state your boundary clearly with an “and,” and help them focus on something they do want when the room is clean so they can see how the motivation formula works for things they know they need to do as well as things they know they want to do. Then, as I suggested above, help them succeed with a series of two-minute tasks they can envision that are possible.

      For example: “You really DON’T WANT to clean any of this. You hate cleaning! It’s a waste of your time… You WANT to play your video game AND the room has to be cleaned first. Picture your game, picture your hands on the controls, picture your favorite part of the game. That will help you get this done really fast. Here’s something you can get done right now…grab all the clothes on the floor and put them in the hamper. Now, pick up the wrappers and throw them in the trash. Look at that! 2 minutes, and the floor is clear. You’ll get to your game in no time at this rate! Now…” Help them like this a few times until they know they can do it quickly, then ease out by stepping out of the room between tasks, until they eventually can do it all without you, pointing out their STRENGTHs along the way. Then watch for that smile over a job quickly done or well done, or even over liking a clean room and point that out, too.

      Wanting something is the true source of motivation; knowing it’s possible puts you in action. I hope you keep working with it, and will let me know how it goes.–Sandy

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